Funeral Business Under Fire

November 5, 1982

Report Outline
Issue of Alleged Abuses
Undertaking in History
Alternative Forces at Work
Special Focus

Issue of Alleged Abuses

Regulation Arising from Abuse Charges

Death, like life, seldom comes easy and is almost never cheap. A funeral will likely be the most expensive thing, after a home and a car, that a family will ever have to buy. Americans spend more than $6 billion a year on funeral-related expenses, and average burial costs exceed $2,571, Growing numbers of people have become wary of the high cost of dying and are finding alternatives to the “traditional” funeral. But most still depend on the advice of funeral directors, who, according to their critics, often suggest and carry out funerals that are unnecessarily elaborate and costly.

The funeral business has flourished against a counterpoint of criticism and a vein of hostility, rooted in an aversion to the concept of making money out of death. Never a popular business, undertaking began to come under fire about two decades ago with the publication of such books as Jessica Mitford's The American Way of Death and Ruth Mulvey Harmer's The High Cost of Dying. There followed the “death and dying movement” in which people were urged, among other things, to simplify burial ceremonies—which often meant transferring planning from the undertaker to the family. Then a decade ago the Federal Trade Commission began an investigation into alleged abuses in the funeral business which had been called to public attention.

The FTC completed its inquiry in 1978, issuing a report critical of many practices in the funeral business—or “industry” as the agency preferred—and last July voted to impose federal regulation on the industry, effective in 1983, unless meanwhile Congress vetoes the FTC's action. The FTC and various consumer groups said they had found evidence that many funeral directors engaged in unfair and deceptive practices. These included selling goods and services that the bereaved would not have accepted had they been aware of a choice, and sometimes even paying for services that were not performed.

ISSUE TRACKER for Related Reports
Regulation and Deregulation